We are grateful for the opportunity to formally respond to the consultation on the future use of Upper Brook Street in Ipswich.
Ipswich Central is the Business Improvement District (BID) organisation for the town centre. It represents 625 businesses, many of whom are situation on or around Upper Brook Street. We have also been an active member of the Ipswich Vision group which has pioneered the ‘connected town centre concept. This visionary strategy has at its core the development of more housing in and around the town centre, together with associated amenities such as increased pedestrianisation and green spaces, and more walking and cycling spaces.
Upper Brook Street is an important commercial area, dominated by retail. It stands out in this regard as the only un-pedestrainised street of its kind. Pedestrianisation in Ipswich has been a positive factor and a point on which almost everyone would agree is that, for those streets where cars and buses have been removed (Tavern St, Carr St, Westgate St and Buttermarket), no reversal of this arrangement could be countenanced.
As a result, Upper Brook Street now fails to achieve its full potential and is held back. The street has narrow pavements and is, effectively, split in two by traffic meaning that there is limited pedestrian movement in the way that you might see on fully pedestrianised streets elsewhere. The majority of upper floors are underused or vacant, with little potential for conversion to residential due to this environment. Some businesses, namely pubs and restaurants, are unable to maximise trade through outdoor seating. Streets such as this, where average visitor dwell time is low, will naturally also suffer from lower than average spend. Increasing dwell time is a key strategy in all commercial shopping areas as, with it, comes higher spend.
The emergency arrangements due to covid have given businesses in the area the opportunity to experience the effects that pedestrianisation might have. It has been very satisfying to witness how visitors and shoppers have started to use the street in a different way; arriving later once the road has been closed, crossing the road more readily, cycling down the street and generally staying there for longer. We are very grateful to the County Council for working with us to put in place this experiment and for now allowing a more permanent arrangement to be considered.
In all, there are 29 commercial units on Upper Brook Street (5 of which are vacant) and a further 35 to the eastern end of Buttermarket (6 of which are vacant). As you know, we have worked with all of these businesses throughout the trial and have tasked our Street Ranger team with closing and then opening the road each day. Therefore, we have taken the opportunity that this consultation presents to talk in detail to businesses about what they would like to see in the future for this street. This has allowed them to consider both the future trading environment they would like to belong to alongside a review of their actual trading performance whilst the temporary arrangements have been in place.
Overwhelmingly, there is very strong support for a permanent pedestrianised solution. There is virtually no appetite for a reversion back to what was there before the temporary arrangements. Businesses have found that they have overcome any initial challenges such as required changes to loading/unloading times. They have reported that they now have more customers, and that those customers stay longer and spend more.
Only two businesses were a little more negative – one (in Upper Brook Street) citing that they could see no reason to not return to ‘normal’ and another (in Buttermarket) saying that they were not sure of the benefits of keeping the road more closed though, whatever the outcome, it did not affect them directly. Otherwise, all other businesses strongly supported permanent pedestrianisation including the two anchor traders, Sainsbury's and Wilko.
Frequently requested by businesses as a result of a more permanent solution were:
- That, as with other streets, sufficient loading/unloading times (pre-10.30am and post 4.30pm) were made available.
- That new arrangements permitted use of the street for sitting out, events, markets etc
- That works would be undertaken to the public realm, particularly to the northern end of the street, rather than it just being left with the appearance of a temporarily closed former road.
To enable the above items to be satisfied, we would propose that the temporary arrangements continue whilst detailed work is undertaken. We would be pleased to engage with you throughout this period and our Rangers will continue with closing and opening the road daily at no cost.
We also have two further suggestions of our own that might improve proposals:
- It might be preferred by some for plans to make Upper Orwell Street bus-only to its northern end still allowed cars to turn right and head down the street from St Helens Street. We do not have a strong view on this and will leave it for the County Council to consider.
- We feel more strongly about a more permanent solution to Upper Brook Street being seen as an important starting point for the vision for the ‘connected town’ and that the County Council works with us and other Ipswich Vision partners to develop the wider, longer-term strategy for elsewhere. To be clear, we would wish to see a commitment from the County to develop this overall strategy, not for the strategy to be developed before proposals for Upper Brook Street are progressed.
Therefore, in conclusion, our view, and that of businesses in the area, is that this is an opportunity that we must not lose. If a decision is made to not progress with one of the long-term proposals, the temporary arrangements will need to come to an end and any progress towards the ‘connected town’ concept – agreed by all key stakeholders – will be set back. It will also lead to a devastating blow to businesses in the area who have worked so hard to survive the pandemic and now want to see a permanent transformation to their trading area.
Of the schemes presented, we would urge the County to progress with Option C and to work with partners to ensure that it is the first of several interventions that will help to progress our shared strategy for the town centre.
Chief Executive of Ipswich Central